As lecturer in obscure subjects, I spend an awful lot of my time explaining that Vikings did not have horns on their helmets. I know it’s an uphill slog I will never win, but I keep at it. Partly because I am paid to do so (in the course of teaching medieval literature) but also because Vikings are cool and their real lives were much more fascinating than the lies most people get from cartoons (where most of their knowledge of history seems to originate).
I know what you think: Vikings were violent men who plundered, raped and pillaged across half the known world and wore helmet with giant horns on them. Lies and prevarications from the losers. Okay—plundering yes, and raping now and then, sure—but they weren’t alone on that count by any means. It was a common technique for getting stuff you wanted that other people had (and still is). Pillaging doesn’t come into English until the 14th century, so while you might refer to pillaging, nobody in England at the time did. Of course they did say things like, ‘Oh god, don’t take our food and belongings and burn down our house’ but it’s not technically pillaging.
Here’s a thing you may not know: the Vikings were great poets. Fact! What else are you going to do on long sea voyages? They carved wood, decorated their horn-free helmets, played board games, diced—and they composed poetry. One of the most famous Icelanders of all, Egil Skallagrímsson, was known for his ability to out-drink anyone, carve magic runes, crush huge numbers of opponents and compose poetry on the spot. His most famous poem is called ‘Head Ransom’ because he calmed the fury of King Eirik Blood-Axe—who very much lived up to that name and who really wanted him dead. How did he dot it?
With a poem singing the king’s praises. Beat that.
Not manly enough for you? Egil was also a world-class wrestler. No, they didn’t actually have titles back then, but trust me. You didn’t mess with Egil: he was the grandson of a werewolf and killed a boy with an axe when he was only seven. Egil rocks.
Icelanders still practice this medieval kind of wrestling, known as Glíma. There is no crouching or crawling around on the ground in glíma: you have to fight standing up. You have to step around each other to show your agility. Attempts to merely shove an opponent down will get you nið (“scorn”) because the contest rests on skill not brute strength and a sense of honour, drengskapr. For all their brutality, there was nothing that mattered more to the Vikings than earning respect from their enemies.
The medieval sagas of Iceland, like Egil’s own story, talk about the sport, which was one of the non-lethal ways Vikings used to test one another. The tradition continues today and the national champion is known as the King of Gríma, or Queen in the case of women—yeah, Viking women rock, too. The king wins the Grettisbelti or Grettir’s belt, named after the saga hero and real outlaw Grettir, who famously wrestled a draugr (a sort of mischievous zombie) named Glámr.
Vikings—medieval or modern—all want the same thing: fame and honor. Well, fame, honor and a poem.
Bio: A writer of bleakly noirish tales with a bit of grim humour, Graham Wynd can be found in Dundee but would prefer you didn’t come looking. An English professor by day, Wynd grinds out darkly noir prose between trips to the local pub. His novella Extricate is out now from Fox Spirit Books. Drop by his Facebook page and give it a like.